The trouble with self-help. Or, why the James Rays of the world do even more damage than you realized. Part 2.
Read part 1.
IF I WERE TO TELL YOU that you really ought to be taller than you are, and I kept it up night and day, how would you feel about that? If I forced you to read book after book that stressed the cardinal importance of height and inundated you with alleged height-building skills (emphasizing on each and every page how vital it is that you internalize and apply those skills), wouldn't all of that have the corollary effect of undermining your contentment with whatever height you are now? If I then coerced you into depleting what's left of your savings in these financially trying times in order to pay $9695 to attend some much-ballyhooed retreat where that message—become a height-seeking warrior!—is delivered nonstop with fever-pitch intensity, wouldn't you feel especially obliged to act on that message, to not rest until you'd added a few of those all-important inches?
By this point, you know where I'm going. And I know what you're thinking: Come on, Steve. Your height is your height. You can't do much about it. Happiness and fulfillment are different.
Is that so.
There are several ways to respond to that.
1. If you've been with us on SHAMblog for any length of time, you know that I'm a determinist. Thus, to people like me, your happiness is precisely the same as your height: You're going to end up where you end up. You can't "grow any happier" than you were ever going to be, just as you can't grow any taller. And as a side note, I've never understood why that's such a depressing notion to so many people. In the present case, for example, in no way does it imply that you're going to be unhappy; maybe your destiny is to be ecstatic 98 percent of the time. Besides, you don't know where you're going to end up in life, and as you go through your daily routine, it's going to seem as if you're constantly making decisions, weighing one option against the other (even though the script for each and every one of those decisions is already written, as is, of course, the outcome). So what's really the difference?
2. Then there's the science on the matter. Admittedly, as I discovered during the research for my forthcoming article on happiness for Skeptic, the knowledge base in this area is frustratingly thin. But the knowledge we do have, or think we have, suggests that even if all of life isn't predetermined as above, happiness to a large extent is. Increasingly the chronic absence of happiness—depression—reveals itself as a matter of pure chemistry: the balance of, and interplay between, the trace amounts of serotonin, norepinephrine, oxytocin and other chemicals roiling around in your nervous system. On top of that are certain emotional predispositions and "response loops" that, again increasingly, appear to be hard-wired. And as I think I noted last time, studies of twins clearly suggest a very strong genetic component to happiness.
3. And then there's plain old common sense. Assume for the purpose of this exercise that I'm wrong about determinism, and we're fully imbued with free will and therefore bear unabridged responsibility for "choosing happiness," as the bumper sticker puts it. Can you really do that if external circumstances declare an all-out vendetta against you? If you lose your job, lose your loved ones, lose your house to the recession or Hurricane Katrina...or let's say you live in some Somali ghetto where, no matter how much freedom of choice you have, there isn't that much to choose from. Is it realistic to think that the vast majority of us who weren't born into charmed circumstances can simply rearrange our lives to provide the optimal fulfillment we seek? Or, alternatively, that we can just will ourselves to "be OK with" the crappy life we've got? Even the great Marty Seligman, unquestioned father of latter-day Happyism and as strong an advocate as there is for grabbing your happiness by the horns, concedes that some portion of the circumstances that will conspire to determine your personal level of happiness is entirely out of your control. (I believe the figure he quesstimates is 25 percent. Didn't have time to check today.)
So what's your point, Steve? That life sucks and we're all doomed? Gee, thank you for sharing. Nice blog you got here...
No. My point is quite the opposite, actually. My point is that by hyping unrealistic idealism, wherein disciples are led to believe they have (or should have) far more control over their lives than they in fact do, the gurus of SHAMland perform a great and crippling disservice. We might call this the Oprah Effect; here, for the sake of expediency, I'll quote from my book, page 249:
Rising expectations are not always a good thing and can even backfire. In fact, this is one obvious interpretation of a small study released...in October 2003. The study, based on a random telephone survey of 1,015 households, concluded that 5 percent of the country's adult population—some 9 million people—feel so much daily stress that they can no longer cope. Fully half of those surveyed said they were fans of The Oprah Winfrey Show. The study therefore assumed a relationship between stress and watching Oprah. Now, even if the study is statistically valid, the mere fact that Oprah viewers may feel more stress that nonviewers does not mean that Oprah causes the stress. Perhaps her show simply attracts people with high levels of existing stress. But one can't help wondering if Oprah's can-do message* is having an effect she did not foresee: To wit, if you make people believe they have full control over their lives, and then their lives don't get better (or even get worse), how could that not throw the synapses into turmoil? Thinking in such terms, one begins to see the importance of realism and being shielded from false hope; one begins to see the downside of being uplifted.That graph was one of those leaps of logic that some readers so disliked in SHAM. But does it not stand to reason? I go back to my question about height: If I made you feel that it was within your power to be taller—if I really convinced you of that—after a while, wouldn't you get pretty damn frustrated with yourself? You'd begin to feel like a loser. Dammit, why isn't this working! I'm fully empowered, and I'm using all of the strategies that Steve taught me! I should be MUCH taller by now, with all the time, energy and emotion I'm putting into this! I submit that it works the same way for most followers of SHAM liturgy.
I could be wrong, but I don't think a person can be always "on"—striving, thriving, blah blah blah—yet also be happy and thoroughly content. I don't even think such a person can be "OK." Constant striving, constant overreaching (because your reach must exceed your grasp, right?) is incompatible with the nature of happiness.
Most readers of this blog, being sane, recognize that boundless, LoA-style Empowerment does not (and cannot) work as advertised. On the other hand, those who (a) have bought in and yet (b) aren't where they want to be in life, factually and/or emotionally, must face an inescapable conclusion: Since the law of attraction stipulates that they will get whatever they strive for, well, that must mean they simply haven't been striving hard enough. Or they've been unwittingly sabotaging themselves (or striving for the wrong things). Ergo, on top of getting shorted in life, they're now cosmic failures, to boot!
So it is that even when the gurus aren't killing you in sweat lodges, they're subtly killing your spirit...in exactly the same way I'd eventually drive you mad by forcing you to go out day after day and learn to dunk a basketball when you're 5-3 and your name isn't Muggsy Bogues.
* Oprah, of course, is the queen of Empowerment.